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School of Ill Repute
June 30, 2013 - 5:12pm

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"[S]ix more Vanderbilt athletes are [reportedly] under investigation," notes SB Nation.  This would be in addition to the four who've already been kicked off the football team in connection with the same investigation.  Whether four or ten players, "it now looks like whatever happened was likely very horrific, and it looks like the damage to Vanderbilt's reputation could be immense."

Yet what do we mean by reputation?  What is reputation, and how does having a crime-ridden football or basketball program damage it?  President Obama routinely honors spectacularly scuzzy game-winning schools at the White House.  He may have nice things to say in general about the importance of educating Americans,  but he's perfectly happy to parade as exemplary Auburn, a university whose life blood has been academic fraud.

Maybe reputation, in the American context, really only means good reputation.  Penn State has a reputation for exceptionally loyal fans; Auburn has a reputation for competitive toughness; Southern Methodist University has a reputation for doing whatever it needs to do (the sort of thing that gets you a death penalty) to win games; the University of Florida has a reputation for fielding players who really care about getting their way, on field and off... It's all good.
 
Thus the possible loss of ten athletes due to what might turn out to be a group sexual assault against a Vanderbilt coed will be... all for the best in terms of reputation?  An instance of a coach having recruited one hell of a red-blooded team?  A team that ... works well together?... I mean, I'm having a little trouble spinning this as reputation-positive; but the problem is that I don't see where any universities in America have lost, or even slightly misplaced, their reputations as a result of crime and corruption from big-time sports.
 
Do fewer people apply to the University of Miami these days?  If this country thought about "reputation" in traditional terms, every mention of that university's name would be accompanied by a chorus singing House of the Rising Sun. UM doesn't just have thuggish teams and imprisoned boosters; it also has faculty members (Charles Nemeroff, Colin McGinn) who attract more than their share of negative press.  UM's palmy splendor shines on.
 
Well but Vanderbilt, you say, is an academically serious school.  Unlike every other school I've mentioned, Vanderbilt has a long history of scholarly excellence.  "Reputation" means intellectual value, and in that regard Vanderbilt, unusually for a big sports school, has something to lose. 
 
We'll see.  Permit me to doubt that anyone - trustees, prospective students and faculty, donors, grant agencies, etc. - cares whether Vanderbilt, like any self-respecting SEC member, acts with cynical disregard for the safety of its student body in recruiting football players.  There's no evidence of anyone caring.  Penalties happen, yes; and people go to jail and all.  But members of SEC university communities seem to regard it as kind of an added jolt of excitement, part of team lore, that their big bruisers tote guns and heavy cars and get in trouble and all.  Of course you see the same excitement in Americans' response to professional sports crime and corruption.  The Aaron Hernandez story is titillating.  Part of one's breakfast news feed.
 

It's quite possible, in other words, that Vanderbilt will thrive, reputationally, as a result of this ongoing event in its history.  Enormous attention will be drawn to the university; it will soon perhaps be seen as a really major sports player - something it hasn't yet achieved.  Until now, the educational seriousness of Vanderbilt has in various ways stayed its hand as it tried to fashion itself a true SEC school.  With this latest scandal, Vanderbilt has moved decisively toward its destiny.

 

 

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